Malaysian women warns changes in Islamic law will hurt wives' rights

Women lawmakers voiced concerns Thursday over proposed changes in a Malaysian law that would make it easier for Muslim men to practice polygamy or divorce their wives. More than 60 senators in this mostly Muslim nation's upper house of Parliament are scheduled this week to debate the proposed changes to the Islamic Family Law, which governs the rights of Muslims in matrimonial issues.

The changes, which were proposed by the Prime Minister's Department and passed by Parliament's lower house in September, will become law in 30 days if the senators approve them, as is widely expected.

However, the upper house's 16 female legislators have banded together to warn that the amendments could jeopardize the rights of women. "Some of these changes will not benefit women," said Senator Ubaidah Omar. "The changes would decrease the rights of wives."

Among the contentious provisions, Muslim men who wish to marry more than one wife will only need to prove that their decision would be "just or necessary." Previously, they had to prove that it would be "just and necessary." Islam allows men to marry up to four wives. The changes would also give men additional rights to obtain a divorce and to assert a claim over their wives' properties.

The Islamic Family Law only affects Muslims, who are mostly ethnic Malays comprising about 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people. The country also has large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mainly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. Nazri Abdul Aziz, the minister in charge of parliamentary affairs, earlier this week assured women that the government would ensure that their rights will not be undermined by the changes.

Malaysia is considered one of the Muslim world's most progressive nations in women's rights. Women hold many key posts in government and corporate organizations. But some activists say discrimination against women still prevails in issues related to family and religion. Nor Hayati Onn, a senator representing the ruling National Front coalition, said she would likely vote in favor of the changes to maintain solidarity with her government colleagues, reports the AP. I.L.